Jake Warner lashes out when his classmates protest the war.

Katie Nelson gets confused by her financial aid.

Four years after enrolling, Todd Johnston still feels lonely; he misses having friends by his side 24 hours a day.

A slew of government benefits is propelling record numbers of veterans into colleges and universities. Thousands of men and women – many back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – are seizing the chance for a free, or nearly free, education.

But even with the financial assistance, the transition to college can be difficult, as veterans such as Warner, Nelson and Johnston can attest.

“It's a lot,” says David Pelis, a counselor at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee who has worked with veterans at area colleges. “On top of their class schedules, they're dealing with readjustment issues that the average 21-year-old student doesn't have.”

Many miss the tight-knit community of a military unit, says Johnston, an Air Force veteran who served in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

“At school you don't get the same feeling you have when you're stuck with the same people for three or four months at a time, every day, all day,” he says.

Other aspects of campus can take adjusting.

Warner, a UW-Madison junior, gets frustrated by what he sees as laziness in some of his classmates and professors. A former Marine Corps squad leader who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he snaps at professors when he thinks they are doing a poor job.

And don't get him started on students who protest the war or military recruiting on campus.

“I was full of pride coming back from war, thinking I really did the right thing,” Warner, 24, says. “These guys have no idea what they're talking about. They'd hand me anti-war literature, and I'd say ‘Go to hell.'”

Tony Jawson, a 24-year-old Army veteran in his freshman year at UWM, says his memory has slipped since he served in Iraq – the result, he suspects, of his blowing up ammunition. He can study for hours, and when he sits down to take a test, forget everything that he reviewed.

“I have to write everything down in order to remember,” he says. “And then hope I remember where I put it.”

Jawson also struggled to sort through the variety of benefits for veterans. None of the officials he talked to could answer all of his questions. The paperwork was difficult to decipher.

Nelson, a UWM junior, experienced similar difficulties.

“I didn't know what benefits I was entitled to,” says Nelson, 22, an Army Reserves veteran. “It took a lot of questions. No one is sitting you down to do the paperwork.”

Pelis works with veteran students who face the possibility of a second tour of duty who have “depression and anxiety through the roof.”

Other veterans, however, are eager to return to service.

“Every time I see a movie about the military, I want to go back,” Warner says. “I miss that focus of my life.”

© 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.